Relive election night in Victory Party

In my short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper Fiction Competition, I portray a Washington shocked by the Trump victory – and one person who’s happy about the result.

Election 2016 was an event that traumatized the American psyche. I wasn’t the only person who processed this horror through fiction. A majority of the submissions to the City Paper contest concerned Trump, as I learned during a reading at Kramerbooks.

I assumed the worst was over. A horrible punch to the gut but then life in Washington would resume along the contours of previous experience. Trump would rise to the occasion and become a normal Republican like Bush.

I was wrong. Realized it during his American Carnage inauguration speech. Everything went downhill from there, a year of outrages culminating in the firing of James Comey. Now, we’ll be lucky to survive 2017 without Trump kicking off war on the Korean peninsula.

During the year, I wrote a novel – The Swamp. My fictional depiction of the Obama era seems quaint. The book presents a scenario I thought outlandish, in which a political groundswell demands that the nation’s capital be moved out of DC. Out of Washington, I called it. But this fictional future reads like a best-case scenario now.

Thinking back on my short story, Victory Party, what would my protagonist make of the past year? My ex-con Randy was happy, the Trump victory representing revenge upon the elite class, through he’s wise enough to know it won’t last. One year later, it hasn’t, and I imagine him trying to stay honorable in very dishonorable times.

We write to make sense of our times, trying to impose narrative on chaos. Washington wrote following the Trump victory. Washington continues to write as the nation unravels.

 

Letter from Washington: Things Fall Apart

The man who would be king

Every morning, I bike by the White House.

Blocked off from traffic, the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue is peaceful and calm. Just after dawn, I slowly pedal by, just me, a few joggers and the Secret Service. In the warm light of morning, the White House looks serene.

Inside, however, a President rages as a conspiracy is revealed.

A plot against America, carried out by the President’s campaign. If this was a season of House of Cards, it would strain credulity. Democrats and Republicans, while they have their differences, all believe in democracy – right?

No. Trump and his family colluded with Russia to win an election, gleefully aided by a Republican party willing to do anything to win.

At first glance, the scandal seems like a black comedy cooked up by the writers of Arrested Development, the Bluth family writ large, a global scheme to launder money and filled with bit players such as a George Popadapoulos, catfished by Russia into thinking he was meeting Putin’s niece. Funny, right?

But then you remember that this isn’t TV. It’s not HBO. It’s your country and the scandal is an attack on democracy, an act of collusion between a corrupt candidate and a Russian adversary eager to upend the global order.

Our external enemy (Putin) has joined with our internal one (red states) in an alliance to bring down the country that they hate: America.

Over the weekend, I watched Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. She too was cursed to live in interesting times, the 1970s, and used her talent to document the disorder she saw in brilliantly-written essays that reported on the decline. Combining a literary eye for detail with a pitiless examination of her personality, she captured what life was like when things fall apart.

We tell ourselves stories to live.

Joan Didion

The thing about the 70s is that no one knew how it would turn it out. As a kid, I remember seeing maps on the spread of communism, from Angola to Yugoslavia. The Russians were going to win – just look at the map. During the Carter era, we were stuck with a combination of inflation and stagnation that economists said couldn’t exist: stagflation. Or maybe another Ice Age was coming. Seemed plausible. Anything did back then, because we didn’t have a defining story, a vision of the future.

Like the 1970s, we’re in a hinge moment. The narrative of democracy has collapsed. A new era of tyrants has emerged, promising a revenge saga of blood and iron. To quote Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In the evening, I return home past the White House. Tourists gather by the fence to snap photos, like they always have. This symbol of American democracy remains a powerful one, despite its current occupant.

And the strength of our story, the American story, endures, as it waits for a new storyteller, and a new vision of the future, to bring us together once again.

Write crap for National Novel Writing Month

Don't give up, OK?

In your head, it’s perfect, the Great American Novel, a book destined to be a classic. All you have to do is write it down.

But an idea is not a real thing. It’s nothing. Saying you have a great idea for a book is like saying you have a great idea for a jet fighter. It’s a fantasy. Only by taking your story and actually telling it do you create art.

Your book will be imperfect. Shockingly so, which is why most people never get around to creating art. It’s safer to be an imaginary artist than a real one.

But, if you’re an artist, you get your art out the door and into the world. “Real artists ship,” as Steve Jobs said. You become a writer by writing, not by dreaming about it.

National Novel Writing Month in November is an excellent time to start your creative journey. Join a global community of people striving to write a novel. Challenge yourself to pick up the literary habit, find the solace of creating something new and make a real contribution to the world.

The objective during NaNoWriMo is to write a novel – not necessarily a good novel. NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality, with a single goal to attain: 50,000 words. That’s 1667 words a day.

The novel can be crap. In fact, it probably will be crap. Expect it to be crap. Giving yourself permission to write crap is enormously liberating.

And you can always fix it. Many great novels have emerged from painful first drafts. Every book gets revised. Hemingway wrote 47 different endings to A Farewell to Arms.

I tend to write and cut. For my short story, Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction contest, I wrote it over a couple of days but then spent the next month picking away it like a turkey carcass, deleting anything that sounded like exposition until only the bones remained. You can fix stories but first you have to write them.

My first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, began as a joke. After three years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I was going to take some time off to write a big, serious novel about 9/11. No pressure.

But, at my going away party, I joked that I was going to write a book called Murder in Ocean Hall. I had learned a lot about the big egos of ocean explorers while at NOAA, as well as interesting background behind the construction of the Ocean Hall exhibit at the Smithsonian. I could pair these interesting stories with my street-level knowledge of DC beyond the monuments to create a murder-mystery.

Write what you know.

Plus, writing a mystery was a way of taking pressure off my own artistic ambitions. I wasn’t writing serious literature. Instead, I was writing genre fiction. It didn’t have to be the Great American Novel; readable would suffice.

I don’t know why people say writing is painful. “Just open a vein and bleed,” according to Hemingway.

But, for me, writing is a joy. Starting during NaNoWriMo, but continuing long after, I went to a coffee shop and made stuff up, piling up words and solving problems as I built my book, learning how to write a novel over endless cups of java.

Is Murder in Ocean Hall any good? Does it matter? I had fun writing it and I enjoy seeing it on my shelf.

Which is why you should NaNoWriMo. You’ll do what few people have – actually write a book rather than just talking about it. But also because writing is a fun and creative activity with its own rewards. And you can do it while hanging out in coffee shops. That’s why I write.

Coming Soon – THE SWAMP

When an errant drone crashes into the White House, it triggers a chain of events that leads to the end of the country as we know it.

Welcome to THE SWAMP, my new novel mocks the city that America has come to hate.

THE SWAMP begins on Christmas Eve, when a drone crash causes a security scare at the White House. Fox News screams, “How can we keep the President safe?” A crackpot idea from a cynical TV correspondent – let’s move the nation’s capital to an underground bunker – becomes an uncontrollable political movement. Can the President and the rest of official Washington contain this red state rebellion or will it swamp them all?

From mommy bloggers to scheming bureaucrats, THE SWAMP is a love letter to this city – and a wish for its destruction – packaged together in a black comedy reminiscent of Christopher Buckley and Evelyn Waugh.

Read the first chapter to get a taste of THE SWAMP.

Victory Party: The Story of a Story

Victory Party in City Paper
Victory Party in the City Paper

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper Fiction Issue. Since then, a number of friends have asked me about the story. Where did the idea for Victory Party come from? How did I write it? Why did I write it?

Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.

Idea

The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the election.

I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.

Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:

voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.

But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?

Conducting research with The Emperor's Clothes at McClellan's Retreat
Conducting research with The Emperor’s Clothes at McClellan’s Retreat

Setting

There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.

DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.

I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.

My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.

Characters

I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.

In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.

It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.

I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.

Plot

Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.

The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.

Writing & Editing

When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.

After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell. 

I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.

After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.

The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of victory, one that he knows won’t last.

I also changed the title, from Her to the ironic Victory Party.

What’s Next

To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a party at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was a thrill.

If you liked Victory Party, you’ll love my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the real city beyond the monuments. Read this book if you want a wry look at the DC art scene.

I also have another novel in the works – Drone City, a satire in which a drone crashes into the White House, leading to the end of the country as we know it. It’s a comedy. I’m editing the manuscript now and am looking for agent. Look for it later this year 🙂

Victory Party Wins City Paper Fiction Contest

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper’s Fiction Issue.

The annual Fiction Issue sought stellar, unpublished short fiction from local writers. Submissions were judged (anonymously) by Mary Kay Zuravleff, whose latest novel Man Alive! was a 2013 Washington Post Notable Book. Stories had to be less than 1000 words long. 

Set in a U Street speakeasy on election night, Victory Party is about the moment that the liberal bubble pops.

The City Paper said:

Good fiction vividly and accurately describes the world we know; great fiction upends that world. And so this story not only exposes the privileged ignorance so many had about the election but also introduces believable supporters for the opposition.

I’m a writer and photographer who has lived in DC for more than twenty years. My fiction is primarily about Washington “beyond the monuments” – the real city and its neighborhoods and people. I think my fiction has a verisimilitude that you won’t find in more commercial works that treat Washington merely as a backdrop. Instead, I write about the city that I wander and photograph on a daily basis.

If you enjoyed Victory Party, then check out my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the city’s art world. It contains the same jaded look at a gentrified city wildly out of touch with the rest of the country.

And come see me read Victory Party at Kramerbooks on Sunday, January 8 at 6:30 PM! It will be a celebration of the City Paper’s Fiction Issue!

 

Three Ways to Find an Agent

reading at Kramerbooks

You’re the next J.K. Rowling, slaving away in obscurity somewhere. You’ve written a book that will change the world. How do you find an agent to get your masterpiece published?

At the recent DC Author Festival, Cynthia Kane from Capital Talent Agency, Bridget Matzie from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth and Dara Kaye from Ross Yoon spoke on an “Ask an Agent” panel about how aspiring authors can find literary representation. Before a packed house in the basement of the MLK Library in Washington, DC, they explained what they’re looking for and how writers can break in to the publishing world.

How do you find an agent? Here are their recommendations:

Get a Referral

The best way to find an agent is to be referred by an existing client, particularly when it comes to nonfiction. Dara Kaye at Roos Yoon said that most of their new clients come from referrals. Good authors know other good authors. Someone referred to the agency gets their query letter looked at more closely than someone unknown to the agency. Other query letters go into the slush pile, to be reviewed by interns and junior agents. If you know someone, use that connection.

Build a Platform

What is a platform? It’s a term that’s used a lot in marketing. In short, it’s a built-in audience of people who are excited to read your work. It could be an avid social media following or an audience you’ve built by being the expert in a field. You can create a platform by publishing elsewhere. For nonfiction authors, this means getting articles published in newspapers and magazines. Fiction writers should also publish, even if it’s only on their own blog.

Find a Junior Agent

If you’re interested in being represented by the Daniel Smith Agency, don’t write to Daniel Smith. He’s the head of the agency and is busy working with existing clients. Instead, send your query letter to someone further down the org chart. Agency web sites often have biographies of their staff. Look for a junior agent, one new to the agency with few clients. Read their biography, discover what they’re interested in and write a query letter directed at them. Writer’s Digest also has a great list of new agents. New agents need great clients. Be one of them.

Bridget Matzie from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth summed up “Ask an Agent” with a helpful bit of advice: the publishing business is a business. While authors and agents may romanticize books, titles need to sell. If they don’t, then she doesn’t have a job. While you may be creating art, the publishing world is going to look at your book as another widget to market. Your job is to write books – the agent’s job is to sell them.

Writing the Dreaded Query Letter

Marked-up query letter for DRONE CITY.
Marked-up query letter for DRONE CITY.

Can you get a literary agent through a query letter? That was the question I had before attending “Writing the Dreaded Query Letter” at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Alan Orloff answered the question in the affirmative. Not only has he obtained representation solely by an email query, he showed us how in this Saturday afternoon class.

The first point he made was perhaps the most important – a query letter is a business letter. It’s not a philosophical treatise. It’s a short, concise email communication that’s designed to get an agent to read your writing sample. That’s it.

Like a good business letter, a query letter has four parts:

Salutation: Address a particular agent by name. You can find agents online through resources such as AgentQuery.

Hook/Description: The hook is a catchy sentence or two designed to catch a reader’s interest. For example, “It’s Jaws in space.” Follow that up with a paragraph describing the plot of the book – what happens and to whom.

Biography: Mention your writing credits and any relevant experience you have.

Close: Thank them for their time and include the first five pages from your manuscript. No need to ask for representation – that’s why you’re writing them.

It was a workshop so I also received feedback on the query letter for my upcoming novel DRONE CITY, from the class and from Orloff (see above). He mentioned that he spends weeks polishing his queries. You only have one chance to impress an agent so you have to make sure that your letter is perfect.

The small class closed with participants exchanging email addresses and Orloff sharing copies of his book, Diamonds for the Dead.

I took this class because I’m working on another novel – DRONE CITY. In this satire, a drone lands on the White House lawn, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the end of the nation as we know it.

With my previous books Murder in Ocean Hall and Murder on U Street, I skipped over the “find an agent” step and self-published, thinking the publishing business was based upon referrals. Orloff showed that it was possible to find an agent through a professionally written query letter. After taking his class, I’m looking forward to finding an agent for DRONE CITY.

 

Next Level Craft at the House of Sweden

#igdc visits the House of Sweden

InstagramDC recently got a sneak peek at the Next Level Craft exhibit at the House of Sweden in Georgetown. This beautiful embassy along the Potomac played host to an exhibit described as:

A mythical wedding, a demonstration, a carnival, a funeral procession, a fashion show or perhaps a combination of all these? A colorful parade of mysterious creatures wander through a fictitious northern landscape carrying unique crafted objects. Who are they and where are they going?

Next Level Craft is not your typical handicraft exhibition – it has its own soundtrack and music video. The renowned young Swedish artist Aia Jüdes has created a playful and different tale of craft, mixing voguing (a modern dance style characterized by perfect, stylized hand and arm movements, acrobatic poses and flamboyant fashion), street art, high fashion, pop culture and electronic music with everything from wool embroidery, weaving and felting to root binding, wood turning and birch bark braiding.

It was a surreal experience, a room filled with bizarre objects and an ever-changing lightshow. Adding to the strangeness was a trippy video of dancing Swedes. So much weirdness for InstagramDC to photograph, as the lights cycled from red to blue.

Best of all, photography was encouraged! It’s a very forward-thinking embassy for hosting this strange exhibit and for reaching out to local photographers to cover it. We had a blast taking pictures of these unique crafts and posing for photos in the weird lighting.

Untitled

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Ever feel like you're being watched? #igdc #georgetown #emptyhos #nextlevelcraft

That was cool. But getting up on the roof was even cooler.

There was an amazing view of Rosslyn and the Kennedy Center, from a vantage point that few get to see. It was sleeting but no way was I going to miss this experience.

A little snow wasn't going to keep me from the roof of the House of Sweden during the #igdc meetup. That's the Potomac River and Rosslyn in the background.

Kennedy Center

As a writer, it’s inspiring to see creative work. It’s source material for me. I wrote Murder on U Street, my novel about homicide in DC’s art scene, after having similar experiences. So don’t be surprised if a trippy Swedish art exhibit shows up in a future book 😉

 

Coffeeneuring #1: Peet’s!

First #coffeeneuring trip of 2014 #bikedc
Dark roast coffee with my bike and the L Street cycletrack in the background.

Coffeeneuring 1: Peet’s (17th and L)
Date: October 4, 2014
Distance: Five miles

Coffeeneuring has returned! The rules are simple – bike to seven different coffee shops by November 16. Check out Chasing Mailboxes for all the details of this coffee-fueled, bike adventure.

For my first coffeeneuring trip, I took my Specialized Sirrus to the Peet’s at 17th and L NW in Washington, DC. Peet’s is a coffee chain from Berkeley that recently replaced all the Caribou Coffees in DC.

I’m a firm believer in feng shui. Some places have good chi energy. With its big windows and corner location, this spot has the plentiful light and ample people-watching that’s perfect for reading, writing or blogging. In fact, I wrote part of my novel Murder in Ocean Hall here when it was a Caribou.

Peet’s is an improvement. The coffee is better and the baked goods are delicious, especially the amaretto brownie.

Located on the L Street cycletrack, and with the White House just a couple blocks away, the Peet’s at 17th and L makes an ideal coffeeneuring destination. It’s also close to National Geographic and innumerable bikeshare stations.

Need more ideas where to go in DC? Check out my seven coffeeneuring trips from last year. Good luck!